By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Standing in the back of a ’92 Dodge Ram pickup with a 22 rifle in hand at 1:30 a.m., in fields of agave and alfalfa somewhere outside the city of Oaxaca, was something I could not have imagined while growing up middle class in Toronto. But there I was, rabbit hunting in south central Mexico with Luis, Arturo, Don Victor and his two sidekicks.
“You’d better dress warm, with layers, a cap and gloves; it gets cold out there at night,” Luis had earlier warned. And he was right. When I arrived home at 3:30 a.m. the next morning, I was still shivering despite heeding his advice. But with three rabbits bagged, and new-found friendships emblazoned through hunting, munching and a bit of imbibing, all under the moonlit otherwise pitch black sky somewhere in Mexico’s nowhere, it was worthwhile.
Luis, Arturo and I squeeze into the cab of Arturo’s truck at 9:20 p.m. after putting food and drink into a cooler in the rear. The back of the eight cylinder gas guzzler is equipped with a power source for illuminating two hand-held high voltage lamps, an open box for resting firearms, and a two-by-eight plank extending across its width for sitting or leaning.
In Tlacolula at 10 p.m., we pick up Don Victor, a stocky 60s-ish game hunter who really knows the ropes. He’s already planned a 2013 trip to British Columbia for bear hunting. “You buy your tag and the outfitters take care of the rest,” he explains. For us, he’s the leader of the pack. He shows us his file with permits in place, retrieves ammo, unlocks two 22s and a 16 gauge, then puts on his thermals, vest, parka and woolen Andes headgear with ear flaps.
We head to two nearby villages to collect his two comrades, Chacho and Julio, one to drive and the other to ride shotgun in back. Born and raised in Tlacolula district, each knows the back roads and countryside like I used to know Lake Simcoe rock shoals. By 11 p.m. the chinga this and pinche that begins; these two guys know how to get us laughing with their guttural, songlike Spanish intonation rife with double entendre.
Chacho drives while Julio rides in back with the four of us. Julio’s job is holding one of the lamps and shouting as soon as he sees movement in the brush.
By 11:30 p.m. I’m already colder than I thought I would ever become. A second scarf goes around my neck. Gradually it works its way over my chin, then mouth, and finally onto the bridge of my nose. Surely Luis was exaggerating, I had earlier thought, with his southern Mexico blood ready to curdle at a first encounter with cool discomfort.
We head out onto deeply potholed dirt roads winding between fields of alfalfa cultivated for cattle fodder, agave for mezcal production, and corn for tortillas. “What’s going on; don’t tell me they haven’t left any rabbits for us,” Don Victor exclaims, only ten minutes after he and Julio had begun to shine the powerful lights deep into the fields.
Don Victor instructs Chacho to turn off and drive between the furrows of maguey. I thought it was bumpy before, but now we’re tracking over hardened plowed troughs of earth. Thankfully Luis and Arturo know to keep the barrels of their guns up or pointed out into the fields. If there’s one thing I do know about hunting, that’s it. In southern Mexico it’s rare for anyone to take lessons or a course to learn how to do anything.
Bang! Arturo’s first discharge of the hunt strikes. Julio scurries to retrieve the rabbit. It’s been hit in the rear and is still wiggling to free itself from Julio’s grasp, so he gives it a swift rap to the head. It’s small, yet nevertheless a keeper. It’s not like regulations governing the catch of smallmouth bass in Canada.
We persevere as the temperature continues to drop. Now it’s my feet, despite thermal socks and steel-less toe Greb Kodiak boots. We continue between the agave, turn off onto another roadway, and then onto a path of trampled tall grasses. With a 16 gauge Luis bags a much bigger hare than the first. Three of us had spotted four at about the same time on both sides of the truck, but only Luis hit his target.
The lamps go out. Someone checks under the hood and learns that a cable had either burnt up or fallen down into the engine. “We’ll just have to get out my tools,” reasons Arturo. I open a zippered canvas bag resting alongside one of the 22s, and pass him pliers and electric tape. Ten minutes later we’re on the road again.
It’s 2 a.m. when talk soon turns to tortas, given that Luis had earlier been telling us how the crusty rolled sandwiches had been made with avocado and tomato, melted American and Oaxacan string cheese, chicken and bacon.
Twice we spot something moving, but they’re only skunks or possums. We conclude that it must be time to feast. We stop in the middle of some patch of something, somewhere, descend onto terra firma, and indulge. Don Victor’s talk of tall tales of bigger hunts enthralls. Chacho and Julio keep us in stitches.
“Let’s just get one more rabbit before we head home,” Luis suggests. Bellies fuller and bodies warmer, and little more jovial all round, we hop back into the truck. It takes two shots for Luis to bag his second, not all that impressive given that he’s been using a shotgun all along; it still brings up the number.
I think we’re heading back to civilization, but I don’t see any street lamps or house lights, in any direction, and wonder how Chacho knows where to go. I then recall being out alone on the lake in rural Ontario in my 12′ aluminum fishing boat with 9.9 Mercury motor more than 40 years ago, in similar circumstances, not seeing a shoreline, instinct getting me home. Chacho knows Tlacolula farmers’ fields like I used to know my own proving grounds on Lake Simcoe. It didn’t matter how dark or how foggy, or how far off shore, I always made it back.
We deliver Chacho and Julio back to their abodes, then unload the guns and sundry equipment at Don Victor’s before hitting the highway for Oaxaca. It feels good to be in the truck’s cab once again, defrosting. Luis sleeps while Arturo and I talk about life.
The three rabbits are now safe in Luis’ freezer. His spouse, Chef Pilar Cabrera, will hopefully prepare them next week. She’s promised that my wife and I will be invited to partake.
For my part, throughout the entire expedition I just stood there in the back of the truck between Luis and Arturo. They’re the much better marksmen. I didn’t get a shot off. Maybe next time.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (www.oaxacadream.com) with his wife Arlene and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera. Alvin takes travelers to Oaxaca to visit many of the central valley sites. He can sometimes be convinced to take hunters out on nighttime rabbit hunting excursions with Luis, Arturo, Don Victor and the boys.